A federal appeals court has rejected complaints from residents of a largely black Salisbury neighborhood who are trying to block construction of a highway bypass that would pass near their community.
The U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday affirmed a lower court’s ruling that threw out most of the legal challenges raised by residents of Jersey Heights to a proposed Route 50 bypass. The court also dismissed allegations that government agencies discriminated against Jersey Heights residents because of their race.
But in a concurring opinion, one judge lamented the “shabby” treatment of the residents by state and federal highway officials, calling it a case of “environmental injustice.”
“The residents of Jersey Heights understandably believe they have been treated as if they do not exist,” Judge Robert King wrote in the concurring opinion. “With regard to the bypass project, the Jersey Heights community was essentially excluded from the decision-making processes that led to key alignment decisions.”
The Jersey Heights Neighborhood Association said state and federal highway officials contacted white residents about the bypass plans in the late 1980s, but failed to inform African-American residents that the planned highway would be near their homes.
The association also maintained that federal and state planners did not adequately consider the social, economic and environmental effects of the planned highway.
“It’s an excuse to obliterate inner-city African-American neighborhoods where residents have the least political power to oppose alignments,” said Steven Hollman, the association’s attorney. “White landowners kind of get together, they’re not concerned about the effect on the African-American community.”
But state officials said the highway administration followed standard procedures in notifying residents who would be affected by the planned bypass.
“We feel it’s a fair and just development,” said Valerie Burnette Edgar, a spokeswoman for the State Highway Administration. “As with any community, they don’t want the highway near their community.”
Assistant Attorney General Lawrence Fletcher-Hill put it more bluntly: “There simply was no difference based on race in the notice given.”
The three-judge panel of the appeals court did not address the charges of racism in its opinion. All three judges, including King, ruled that the association waited too long after the route was selected to file its lawsuit.
The neighborhood association sued various local, state and federal agencies in 1997, eight years after the Federal Highway Administration approved the proposed Route 50 location.
Hollman said Jersey Heights residents did not hear about the plans until 1992, and they approached the government agencies with their objections before resorting to litigation.
The ruling “penalizes them [Jersey Heights residents] for behaving rationally,” said Hollman.
But Fletcher-Hill said some Jersey Heights residents knew about the plan before 1989 and they had ample time to air their grievances. The association “wants to take the plans back to the beginning and erase $1 million or so of planning that has occurred,” he said.
The court said the association did meet one deadline, however, and it reinstated the association’s challenge of the state’s refusal to update its assessment of the highway’s impact on the community in 1995.
Hollman said he hopes the reinstatement of this provision will open the door for the highway administration and the neighborhood association to work together for a more suitable solution.
But Fletcher-Hill said the only way the plans would change at this point is by court order.
A civil rights complaint from the case is also on appeal before the Federal Highway Administration.
But a Jersey Heights resident said he has little hope that things will change.
Dwight G. Waters said “there is no doubt” in his mind that the highway will go forward as planned – right past his door.
“Racism is still alive and well in Wicomico County,” said Waters. “For once I’d like to see a road built in a predominantly white neighborhood.”